Albanese should take the Voice to the people

Apr 11, 2023
Black male hand holding the Australian flag abd putting it in the ballot box. Image: iStock

The gutsy thing for Anthony Albanese to do in the wake of the coalition’s decision to vote “no” in the Voice referendum would be to carry on virtuously with the ballot, taking such advantage as he can from the Liberals’ decision to break the heart of more than half the country. But the inspired response would be to announce an election in which Liberal hostility to the voice would be only one of a hundred examples of where Peter Dutton and his party are out of step with the public mood, and almost adamantly determined to infuriate it.

It’s what Gough Whitlam would do. What in fact he did in 1974 immediately after the Liberal leader, Billy Snedden announced that the opposition would oppose supply in the Senate where the coalition and the Democratic Labor Party had the numbers. And he did it successfully, not only winning back power in the House of Representatives but improving his position in the senate, so that the coalition and Labor had 29 seats each, with one for an Tasmanian independent (who later re-joined the Liberals) and another for an independently minded former South Australian Liberal premier. Because it was a double dissolution election, a joint sitting of parliament saw Medibank go on to the statute books, representation for the ACT and the NT in the senate. Those who remember the Dismissal of 1975 might remember that the numbers in the senate were later altered by the refusal of coalition state premiers to replace dead or retiring MPs with Labor representatives. Snedden argued inanely that he “didn’t lose” the election; he just hadn’t won.

Last Saturday’s Aston by-election confirmed that Dutton has not found any sort of winning strategy, least of all in metropolitan seats. Far from it. There was a swing to Labor in a seat that had already swung strongly towards Labor in 2022, and almost all of the commentary, from the losers as much as the winners, talked of the Liberals being completely out of touch with voter sentiment. There was relatively little discussion of the Voice in the campaign itself – Dutton had deliberately held back on announcing his policy on the subject, but there can be little doubt that the general endorsement of Labor and its management of the past year embraced the Voice proposals, and that an earlier announcement by the coalition would probably have increased the size of the swing against it. The Voice might not be popular in every constituency around Australia, but most of the polling evidence shows it to be more popular in metropolitan areas. The Liberals are in almost terminal agonies in urban Victoria, and demographic changes suggest that their situation is only going to worsen. At least until they get leadership of a sort voters can support, and until the Liberals abandon their flirtations with fringe politics, the politics of sexual choice, and thrall to Murdoch demagogues.

It had always seemed obvious that Indigenous Australians, and the Voice campaign, could never be worthy enough to earn the support of Peter Dutton. He has never demonstrated any passion for Aboriginal advancement nor sympathy for Aboriginal causes, and his Queensland police background has not been any help either. There are modern cops who have taken the trouble to appreciate that force and reflex law and order operations neither reduce crime nor the causes of crime. That the campaign for the Voice had begun under coalition governments, with most of the substance of what is to go to the referendum settled during Scott Morrison’s time, had passed him by. As a minister, he was not interested and did not, apparently, bother to read the papers going to Cabinet. He understood many moderate Liberals had been involved in promoting the idea of constitutional recognition and an Indigenous right to be heard and would be reluctant to repudiate it. Some of his desire to do so may have been fuelled by Albanese’s embrace of the Voice not only at last year’s election campaign but as a first-order- of- priority matter immediately after it was clear that Labor had been elected. Dutton’s contempt for fashionable and progressive causes is in direct proportion to Labor and small l liberal enthusiasm. Yet there has been precious little evidence that shifting to the right and ignoring popular opinion, or mere Abbott-style oppositionism has been politically successful either in the short or the long term. The fact that Dutton has spent most of the past year being against everything, without ever having associated himself with a new positive alternative policy or even a new style of presenting himself to the electorate underlines his unpreparedness.

Dutton and the coalition are entirely unprepared for all-out political warfare.

Indeed, a good reason for Albanese to be opportunistic with an election is that both Dutton and the coalition are entirely unready for any sort of snap election. Dutton has sjoheemed to think that he has time on his side. Time to remake his party in his own image. Time to deal with the urgently needed administrative reorganisation of the party, and not only in Victoria and Western Australia. Time to devise and market attractive policies. Time during which the supposed Albanese honeymoon is over, and voters are disillusioned about intractable problems of government, particularly about energy and the cost of living. As things stand, no election is due for two years. The Aston by-election showed that voters do not yet blame – or at least are not rushing to punish – the Labor government for higher interest rates, electricity charges, or the cost of living. Nor has anything that Dutton or the coalition has done served to soften the problem of being perceived as the “nasty party” – mean-minded, coercive and punitive in its attitude to disadvantaged groups, including, of course, many Indigenous Australians. Profligate and irresponsible in looking after its friends, cronies and party donors, and, as it now appears, with some not beyond some personal enrichment on the side. Effectively in opposition to anti-corruption measures, and unapologetic about abuses such as stacking administrative tribunals, or the Morrison attempted coup with secret ministries. The Liberals have a past, including with economic management, which is still a political liability. Just why they are looking for fresh enemies – and not only among the Aboriginal political class but among millions of decent and generous minded Australians eager for a settlement with Indigenous Australians is not so clear.

The party is still unsure whether it should become a more doctrinaire conservative party, where Dutton seems most comfortable, or whether it seeks to control the political centre as well as the right. Despite the leeway party leaders get, it’s not a decision for Dutton alone to make. Nor for the present federal members of parliament alone. The Liberal Party, representatively as much as organisationally, is a federal body. In differing degrees, the state party administrations are dysfunctional, and know it. But that does not mean that members of these bodies will step aside to leave matters to the judgment of the leader or his team. Especially when some members or factions of the party are far from convinced that Dutton or his team can bring them back to power. Nor will the party’s structures show any sign of abandoning debilitating factional wars, or coping with the entryism of the new groups seeking power inside the party so that they can push their agendas, whether politically palatable or not. Dutton’s big problem is with an increasingly well-organised penetration by fundamentalist religious groups. These are ideological aligned with him, but not particularly on his side. The party is also subject to people imbued with conspiracy theories, nutty science and single-issue folk, focused particularly on gender politics and seemingly wanting to reopen abortion and same-sex marriage arguments.

Just as importantly the parliamentary party, even counting senior party politicians in the states, lacks mainstream philosopher kings and queens. These are people able to articulate or redefine party values and a sense of purpose. The closest now may be Dominic Perrottet, who was able to project himself as pragmatic and principled, without being doctrinaire. Dutton is not of the character or personality to emulate Perrottet, and, in any event explaining, defining and renewing has never been his strong suit. No one can remember a memorable phrase from a speech, or an argument by him which changed the debate, set the pace, or made other people think in a new way. Slogans are no substitute. It was embarrassing to hear Dutton mumbling about a return to Menzies ideas, and aspiration in the aftermath of the Aston by-election; for good or for ill, Menzies would not recognise the party in its current clothing, and he would despise most of its main players, including Dutton. Menzies admired Malcolm Fraser, admittedly before he was seen to be wet on racial issues; he would not have been sympathetic to the grip that neo-liberalism took on the party, nor the purging instincts of John Howard. Menzies’ own travails during his first prime ministership, and the politics of the collapse of the United Australia Party convinced him that the party ought to have a wide umbrella, and without secret squads of vigilantes focused on maintaining a particular line.

It was Dutton who politicised the debate. But it gives the PM the right and the duty to make the referendum a very political test of character for the Liberal Party. The moderates deserve no more mercy than the hardliners.

Albanese and those behind the Voice referendum have been calculating, or at least hoping, that Liberal and National Party antipathy and the organised No campaign would not torpedo the referendum in the way that resistance to a constitutional referendum usually does. They figure that support for the Voice is emotional and strongly held, including by people who see some act of reconciliation and recognition as an essential ingredient in a new sense of Australian nationalism. Many of
these are likely to be influenced by nit-picking about forms of words, or differing claims about legal advice. This is because the proponents of the Voice have declared themselves satisfied with the current formulae, and because many of the objections have been seen (or recognised) as excuses for inaction, reflecting a basic antipathy to
Aboriginal aspirations. I have been reproved on Twitter for seeming to suggest that all opposition to the Voice is race-based, or racist. No doubt there are some theologians who have shaped defensible theoretical problems with the constitutional amendment, but I have listened carefully to most of the No arguments, and observed most of the No constituencies, and see mostly appeals to prejudice, denial of Aboriginal history, culture and present-day experience, or insistence
that their own expertise and wisdom overbears anything the Yes committee has had to offer.

Yet it is undeniable that Dutton’s pandering to the Angry Old Faceless Men of the coalition is a blow to the campaign and may sink it. It is a blow to the idea, once promoted by Liberals, that recognition and the Voice might arrive as a popular consensus, in somewhat the manner of the 1967 referendum. It will be an emotional and a bitter debate, and what some of the No players have said and done will long be remembered, including in the history books. Some may not be forgiven. Over the years as the debate about having a referendum has progressed, I have commented that it might be wise to retire if there was a serious risk that the referendum might fail. What, after all, would rejection say to Aboriginal Australians? What would it say about how Aborigines struggled to be heard in the future? And what would it say
about those who had broken their hearts?

If the referendum fails, and it might, its passionate supporters will know who to blame.

Voters will now have come to think that the referendum should proceed even with a real risk of failure, and even with a real risk of dividing and polarising the community for generations to come. It is a debate that must be had, and if there are pieces to be picked up one can be sure that the wider electorate will know who to blame. That blame allocation – indeed the very process of the referendum debate – will test the future of the Liberal Party as never before. It is worth remembering that state Liberals have been enthusiastically in favour of the Voice. Dutton has confected an argument that Albanese has sought to politicise the debate and divide the community over the referendum. He means that it’s a plot against the Liberals. But his argument does not stand up. Albanese was punctilious – some might say
for too long – in giving the coalition every chance to get on board. He regularly consulted and briefed Dutton, as well as once moderate Liberals who had previously been on side. (And who, in the face of constituency pressure may well end up campaigning for yes.) Albanese kept the counsel of Ken Wyatt, minister for Indigenous Affairs in the Morrison government, whose anguish and fury against Dutton is ample testimony about who is to blame.

There is of course a risk that the Voice referendum could be swamped in a simultaneous election. But given the coalition’s unpreparedness, the Voice proposal gives moral weight to the Labor case for re-election and undermines the Liberal case for preparedness and fitness to govern. In my opinion, the Voice has a better chance in
tandem with an election.

The Easter holiday, and the recess before the Budget gives Albanese some room to manoeuvre. He need not declare his hand immediately, other than by signalling, as he has, that the referendum will proceed. His organisation must also be ready with preselections – a pain that might well be overborne by the certain knowledge that the same process in the Liberals will probably involve flesh wounds. During the Budget session Albanese must get the referendum enabling legislation through in any event. (The Liberals have said they will not oppose this). He could also have a slash at trying to provoke a double dissolution by daring the Greens to oppose his housing legislation. He has already done this, if without an immediate election in view.

It is true that Albanese has indicated that the referendum would be a stand-alone matter, but the situation has changed. It is common for referendums to be held at election time.

The constraining argument against an election is Albanese’s traditional timidity and caution. But if he cannot dare to win an election at this propitious time, he ought to give politics away. There will not be a better opportunity to cement Labor’s power over the next two years. Or to kill off Dutton for good.

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